Age of criminal responsibility of children: Maggie Atkinson

A lot of people think that the Children’s Commissioner, Maggie Atkinson, could have chosen a better time to suggest the possibility of raising the age of criminal responsibility.

Many of you may find yourself researching this subject and reporting on the age of criminal responsibility in other countries.

The age of criminal responsibility has been the subject of reform in the recent past but in current times it would be very brave of the government to even hint at considering raising the age of criminal responsibility.  In recent years and following consideration of the point by the former House of Lords when the House preferred to leave the matter to Parliament The Crime and Disorder Act 1998  abolished the presumption that under-14s in England and Wales did not know the difference between right and wrong.

Until the 1998 Act, those aged between 10 and 14 could only be brought before a criminal court when prosecutors could show the children knew their actions were wrong.
The Ministry of Justice has made it’s position clear by saying "We do not intend to raise the age of criminal responsibility. It is not in the interests of justice, of victims or the young people themselves to prevent serious offending being challenged.
"Custody for under-18s is always a last resort and is only used for the most serious, persistent and violent offenders.
"Only 3% of young offenders who admit or are convicted of an offence receive a custodial sentence and the government has expanded the range and intensity of community sentences available for young people, as an alternative to detention."
The Children's Commissioner for England, Dr Atkinson,believes th at children who commit criminal offences need to be dealt with differently than adult criminals. In addition she asserts that the age may need to be raised to 12 as most criminals under 12 do not, or may not, fully understand their actions. What happens in other countries? Well, the age of criminal responsibility in a number of our European neighbours is higher – and ranges from between 14 and 16. In Scotland, the government there have introduced legislation to raise the level from 8 to 12.
You may find it interesting to consider the age set in some other countries in ascending order from 7 to 18 around the world as follows:
Ages of Criminal Responsibility
 7  - Switzerland, Nigeria, S Africa
 8  - Scotland, Sri Lanka
10 - England, Wales, Northern Ireland, Australia, New Zealand
12 - The Netherlands, Canada, Greece, Turkey
13 - France
14 - Italy, Germany, Bulgaria, Romania, China
15 - Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Czech Republic, New York (US), South Carolina (USA)
16 - Spain, Japan, Texas (US), Poland
18 - Belgium, Luxembourg, in most US states

Dr Atkinson has told the Times that "The age of criminal responsibility in England is one the lowest in Europe.
"The statistics show that we are in danger of criminalising too many children and young people by locking them up for committing far less serious crimes."
Dominic Grieve, the Shadow Justice Secretary, seems to think that changing the age of criminal responsibility was not the answer.’ Mr Grieve wants to see more done to address the problem of offending by children saying We need fundamental reform to address the causes of offending by children, including family breakdown, poverty, gang culture and school discipline."
When considered in the cold light of day and putting to one side the tragic case of James Bulger, it seems that others also seem to agree with the sentiments expressed by Maggie Atkinson.
The Prison Reform Trust, through its Director Juliet Lyon, said it "would be wise to review the age of criminal responsibility, taking into account standards set by the UN Convention and international comparisons".
A former Chairman of the Youth Justice Board, Professor Rod Morgan, said: "In no other country in Western Europe would Jon Venables have been prosecuted.
"A welfare approach with very young children offers a much greater range of opportunities and much better outcomes than is the case if we take a wholly criminal justice response."
Prof Morgan went on to explain what should happen instead, saying - the child would be subjected to family court proceedings and would probably be taken into care.  This is assuming that we do not have any problems with such systems including the role of social services and their intervention.  Unfortunately we have learnt through some very disturbing cases that such intervention comes too late for some children at risk - how can we feel any more confident that the sorts of cases where there is a risk to others will be dealt with in time.


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